Credit: Paul John Higgins

Holidays don’t make us any deeper, but they give our minds a little room to wander. I find myself with a few curious things to say about the New York Times, where the most interesting item I read over the past two weeks was a correction.

The Times confessed to a horrendous careless error. By
this I mean misreporting not due to misjudgment or mendacity—such as those fabricated Times articles written in the early 2000s by Jayson Blair. No, this was just a royal screw-up. A December 20 front-page story on the “stark gap” in breast cancer survival rates between white and black women in America offered charts comparing these rates in several states. The Times commented, “Among the states with available data, Tennessee has the largest gap—with nearly 14 black women dying for every one white woman.”

On Christmas Day the Times ran the following correction:

A chart on Friday with an article about racial disparities in deaths from breast cancer misstated the mortality rate gap between black women and white women in Tennessee. For every 100,000 women in 2010, the mortality rate for black women was 36, and the mortality rate for white women was 22, which is about 1.64 black women for every white woman. It is not the case that nearly 14 black women in Tennessee die from breast cancer for every white woman who does.

We can see where the number 14 came from—it’s the difference between 36 and 22. But how did that difference get construed as a black rate 14 times the white rate? Somehow the Times managed to do this, providing me with ammo for a couple of my favorite complaints about the daily press. One is recent: newspapers have become notorious for saving dollars by cutting back on copy editors, taking the fatalistic position that mistakes made in the paper can always be corrected online.

For example: a Reader colleague who slugged her e-mail “Block that metaphor!” alerted me to the following passage in a December 26 Times story: “Toledo is hardly the only American city pursuing investors from China, but it is punching well above its weight at a time when other cities are striking out.” I’d like to think this god-awful, though harmless, sentence would never have survived the Times‘s editing process 15 years ago.

And sure enough—the passage shows up on the Times website amended to read: “. . . punching well above its weight at a time when mayors from Philadelphia to San Francisco are returning from China empty-handed.”

Too many journalists are numerically illiterate.

But the other complaint is about something chronic. The print version of the breast cancer death-rate story wasn’t just factually wrong but exponentially wrong, so wrong it screams out, this number can’t possibly be right! That no one in a position to fix it heard the scream supports my proposition that too many journalists are numerically illiterate, having little sense of what numbers are good for, how they can be manipulated, and when they’re patently absurd. I’ve written the Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, asking how such a huge mistake made it into print, and if she replies with an explanation I’ll post it online.

Then there was the Times story about Pope Francis’s first Christmas day address. Under the headline “Pope, Off Script, Nods to Atheists in Holiday Call for World Peace,” the Times reported that Francis “proved unpredictable again on Wednesday, when he went off script to include atheists in his call for peace, rare for a Catholic leader.”

I’m not suggesting there was anything misguided about focusing on the pope’s addendum. But as I’ve said already—my thoughts wandered. What if coverage of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address 150 years ago had taken the same tack? Headlines might have said, “President, Off Script, Nods to Deity in Call for New Birth of Freedom.” For in the passage “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom,” under God was also an interpolation. Lincoln’s last-second impulse was to acknowledge God, while the pope’s was to acknowledge the godless. That this observation says something important about the waxing and waning of religious sentiment in the Western world seems beyond dispute, though I leave it to the deeper pundits to tell us what it is.

And in a recent blog post, public editor Sullivan announced that the Times hopes for tens of millions of dollars in new ad revenues by launching a new online initiative to develop what Sullivan calls “native advertising.”

The problem the Times—along with every other newspaper in America—wants to solve is the reluctance of advertisers to buy digital ads. That reluctance is warranted. I assume most ad buyers personally despise digital ads for their intrusiveness and assume the customers they want to reach do too. Why pay serious money for an ad that the people it reaches will surely resent and do everything possible to ignore?

But if those ads don’t pay the freight, what will? It’s a conundrum tailor-made for guile and trickery. And Sullivan explained, “The idea behind native advertising, according to some practitioners, at least, is to appeal to readers (or ‘users’ of digital media) by making advertising look and seem as much like editorial content as possible.” In other words, native advertising is advertising that’s especially welcome and trustworthy because it’s mistaken for editorial copy—though of course it’s uniquely despicable when it isn’t.

To judge from mail I get from readers who aren’t fooled, so-called native advertising makes their skin crawl.

Sullivan reported that the Times will take the high road. The confusion that lesser papers seek “is what The Times intends to avoid,” she wrote, “through labeling, design differences and disclaimers that will make it clear just what you’re looking at. The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., told Times staff members in an email. . .’We will ensure that there is never a doubt in anyone’s mind about what is Times journalism and what is advertising.'”

Sullivan tried to explain what the Times has in mind, which involves providing advertisers with the same multimedia tools that distinguish Times journalism online. But she wasn’t sure the Times could have it both ways: “Can it be conservative in its approach—heavy on the labeling and disclaimers, careful never to confuse—and still draw advertisers? Or will that very clarity defeat the purpose of a form that has bafflement at its very heart?”

If digital journalism has vindicated any aspect of old-fashioned print journalism, it’s the advertising that used to pay the freight. The ads that surrounded the editorial copy were themselves a kind of editorial copy—news of goods for sale that readers could study, skim, or ignore along with everything else in the paper. Like commercial breaks on television, online advertising simply gets in our way. And digital ads don’t even let us do what we used to do when TV shows broke for commercials—go out to the kitchen and slap together a roast beef sandwich.

The Times challenge is to create online advertising as attractive as it is obnoxious. A tall order.